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Big Heart of Peckham Sign promoting Community Sponsorship of refugees

By Gabriella D’Avino, pioneer volunteer and researcher for the Community Sponsorship Scheme Evaluation led by the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS).

The hardest thing when telling a story, especially a personal one, is to decide where to begin.  Without going too far I would like to say a few things about me before I first heard about Community Sponsorship and became one of the pioneer volunteers and researchers in the field. I have always had a desire to explore the world, to help others and to raise my voice against injustice.  A few weeks after I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs from Bologna University, I left Italy and moved to London. After a couple of years, I achieved a Master’s degree in Human Rights, Culture and Social Justice at Goldsmiths, University of London, winning the Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement.  During my studies, I started focusing my attention on refugees and migrants, working closely with refugee minors and conducting a dissertation research project on how the media, particularly newspapers, represented the migrants who died crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The research was timely, as less than a month later, the image of Alan Kurdi's dead body spread across the world.

Since Alans Kurdi’s death in such horrific circumstances my desire to improve the lives of migrants and refugees has been growing, not only because of the high number of people fleeing, but also because of the importance of freedom of movement for my life and for all human beings, as stated in the Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, when I heard that a new project to help refugees was starting in my neighbourhood I wanted to learn more. I did not expect that Community Sponsorship would be such an important part of my life. It was an evening in January 2018 when a group of more than 100 neighbours that did not know each other met for the first time to find out how they could do something to support refugees through the Community Sponsorship Scheme. A few weeks later 'Peckham Sponsors Refugees', one of the first Community Sponsorship groups in the UK, was born and I offered to chair the group.

In just four months, more than £20,000 was raised and a six-bedroomed house identified enabling us to have potential to welcome a refugee family.   The Home Office officially approved 'Peckham Sponsors Refugees' resettlement application in December 2018. The journey to be ready to welcome the refugee family's arrival in the UK in March 2019 was without doubt intense, involving so many amazing people, large amounts of labour and capital, learning and sharing skills, frequent meetings, and debates. It was not always easy, but it was extremely rewarding especially when seeing the smiling faces of the newly arrived family in front of their new home. With the family’s arrival, a new chapter of 'Peckham Sponsors Refugees' started, probably even more intense than the last!

Three months ago, we should have celebrated the family’s first year in the UK, but the Covid-19 situation prevented this. However, 'Peckham Sponsors Refugees' hopes to come back together soon to toast to our achievements and start a new journey to help a second family. Community Sponsorship has given me so much, especially the opportunity to give a refugee family a safe home and a new start in life.

I will begin my Doctorate degree on Community Sponsorship at the University of Birmingham in September, bringing with me the wealth of experience and knowledge gained as a volunteer.  There are three things, among the others, that I think would be helpful for me to keep in mind both as an activist and as a researcher. The first is to be practical, and not allow the academic world to be too far away from day-to-day reality. The second is to be reflexive through listening to myself and the people around me which I believe is the key for learning and improving.  Reflexivity and openness are so important in CSS where people who often know little about refugees’ issues or about Arabic culture come together with families that frequently have no knowledge about life in the UK. To build a strong relationship it is important to understand different points of view. As a volunteer, reflexivity can help to create a common ground in which everyone feels respected and valued, avoiding false expectations and taking things for granted, and as a researcher, reflexivity can prevent bias, recognising the importance of personal experience and values. Last, but probably the most important thing, is that I would make central to both my involvement as an activist and as a scholar of Community Sponsorship to acknowledge that we are all human beings. Everyone has different stories, feelings, beliefs, negative and positive sides; but perfection, a perfect human being, a perfect society, can almost certainly never exist, but we do not have to stop trying and hoping to create a better world. For as simple as this statement is, our hope and efforts to make a better world are what make us human and our actions powerful. Community Sponsorship is for me a meaningful part of the process of making a positive change.

Blog written by Gabriella D'Avino, pioneer volunteer and researcher for the Community Sponsorship Scheme Evaluation Project.

Read more about the Community Sponsorship Evaluation and the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS).